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Fostering Inclusion & Diversity in STEM Organizations

Advancing an inclusive, equitable and diverse workplace is crucial -- not only for organizations to be successful, but more importantly, the progression of our society.
Fostering Inclusion & Diversity in STEM Organizations -

However, to change the world, we must spark meaningful change in our own environments. And for me, as of recently, it’s been the tech sector.


Promoting inclusion and diversity (I&D) initiatives within the STEM field is notoriously difficult, often due to unconscious bias in hiring efforts, promotions, and centuries-old inclusion issues. According to recent Pew Research, Hispanic and Black workers continue to be underrepresented in the STEM workforce, and women make up a quarter or fewer of workers in computing and engineering.


I’ve been drawn to a career in I&D since I embarked on my career. There’s always been a driving force within me to better understand people, their backgrounds, and how those backgrounds contribute to their understanding of the world. To me, I&D within an organization means employees from different walks of life can appreciate the journey of the folks to the right and the left of them: no matter their race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, disabilities, or religious affiliation. Here, I’ll share some of my experiences on how STEM organizations can get started on their I&D journey, and how they can combat common roadblocks.


First, ensure leadership buy-in


The first step to sparking meaningful I&D change within an organization is confirming leadership’s commitment to this work. It’s important that they understand that I&D is not a “flavor of the month,” so to speak. They must be ready to engrain these practices within the foundation of the organization for the long-haul. If this isn’t the case off the bat, you must be ready to have conversations with members of leadership who are unfamiliar with I&D, haven’t had experience implementing I&D, or may not fully understand why, (or even believe that) I&D can make your organization a better place to be. Having difficult conversations to confirm intentions and understanding will ensure leadership’s long-term belief in the greater mission. It’s also important to note that once conversations have been had, it’s time to take action. One thing leaders want to be careful of is getting caught in a loop of “talking” about I&D, but not doing anything to make a difference. It is very easy to get a reputation of being an organization that “talks the talk,” but isn’t really committed to making any substantial changes. I’ve often told leaders, “the intention can be there, but what type of impact are you actually having?”


Then, take count of your resources


Confirm you have the resources needed to be successful in your efforts: do you have the funding for initiatives like bringing in keynote speakers, more employees, or granting money to employee resource groups? While the importance of I&D goes beyond a function of business, it must be treated like any business area: if you don’t have the resources you need, it can’t be successful. Lack of resources is also a source of burnout for many I&D leaders: the work is emotional, and they’re often the sole leaders within an initiative. Studies even show that emotional labor leads to decreased productivity, increased stress, and a greater chance of burnout.


Then, evaluate the pulse of employees


This sounds simple, but it’s a lengthy step. There’s a real desire among I&D leaders to hit the ground running with big initiatives, and I get that! However, if you’re trying to spark meaningful and lasting I&D, it’s crucial to understand the pulse of the organization to make tailored strategy decisions. For example, as Progress’ first Chief Inclusion and Diversity Officer, I’m conducting a “listening tour” throughout the entire organization that will likely span the entire quarter. My goal is to get very small groups together – let’s say five to eight employees per session – from IT to HR and every business area in-between, to ensure they feel supported, have growth opportunities, and have a safe space to voice any concerns. I also encourage leaders to go into their teams, look around, and truly take stock of where the majority of their workforce’s background comes from – this also includes what type of talent they’re recruiting. This experience is usually humbling, but very informative.

The STEM industry is ripe for I&D change, and I truly believe it will help these organizations foster more innovation: for their companies and our greater social structures. I’m thrilled to join an organization that has committed to ensuring their inclusion, equity and diversity practices not only meet but exceed the STEM industry’s standards. By following these best practices, you can prime your STEM organization for lasting I&D impact.



  • Dr. Shirley Knowles

    Dr. Shirley Knowles is Progress’ first Chief Inclusion and Diversity Officer. She is responsible for leading the company’s inclusion and diversity initiatives designed to foster a culture where all employees feel valued, safe and successful. She previously served as the first diversity and inclusion officer of a large property and casualty insurance company in Boston where she led initiatives to promote inclusivity and appreciation of cultural, racial, ethnic, religious, socioeconomic and educational diversity.